Dimitri Stories, A New View on 6th Grade Science Camp

Sixth grade camp is not a new experience for me.  After teaching sixth grade and attending our week-long outdoor ed/science camp for at least seven years (getting harder to keep the various grades straight in my mind).  This means each year we’d fund raise, plan, and attend a week of camp at Walker Creek Ranch in Marin County, California.  The hard part of camp is planning but once you’re there with kids, it’s awesome!  The fun of learning at an outdoor school is infectious.

Our school recruits high schoolers as Cabin Leaders.  These young people are ‘on’ with groups of 10-12 6th graders almost 24 hours a day.  They have a break for a check in with the Cabin Leader Coordinator during after-lunch rec time… students are on the ball field playing and chatting.  Then again at “teacher time” when they have a real break to themselves (students are with their classroom teacher for a check-in, sharing, activity time).

We invite students to apply for a Cabin Leader position, we interview, we check with their counselor (can they miss a week of school and be counted on to make it up appropriately?, do they have any discipline issues that would cause concern?, etc.) then we make our choices and bring all the Cabin Leaders together for an afternoon training.  Since we attend camp with five other elementary schools that feed into our common junior high, we bring all our selected Cabin Leaders together to train together and be united in our expectations and guidelines.  It’s a great system we’ve developed.  99% of our choices have been rock solid.  Honestly, students usually weed themselves out well before we have to.  The questions we ask, the responsibilities we outline make it clear to the student if this kind of role is a fit for them.

I’ve taught a lot of students in my career as an intermediate elementary school educator.  Over those years, many former students have returned to camp with us as Cabin Leaders.  It’s very rewarding to see them in this new light.

As our site’s principal now, I support all the planning and rigmarole that camp entails.  We have two new-to-sixth grade teachers this year so I was very involved.  But then they drive away, and I’m left back at school (boo hoo).  But the real point of my post is that my older son, Josh, was a camper this year.  And my view of the Cabin Leader was elevated even more.  I know these high school students are a major memory-maker at camp; their enthusiasm is contagious, their goofiness frees our early-adolescents to be goofy, their leadership of the cabin is what gels these kids together for the week.

At our dinner table last night, we heard some stories of camp.  I had to really coax out the stories, but once he lit on a Dimitri story, his cabin leader, Josh’s face lit up and the smile couldn’t be held back (although he tried).  Their cabin name was Condor (all, as you can imagine, are named for local critters).  When traveling as a group, Dimitri would hold his hands, thumbs slightly overlapped, imagine bird wings, shout CONDORS! and they’d all line up and march in unison for a few steps, “we could never keep it up very long, just a few steps,” Josh shared through a huge grin.

Another Dimitri story… the bandana he’d wear spoke to his “look” for the day.  Josh listed the ninja-look, gangster-look and pirate-look as he gestured to show how the bandana placement reflected the “look.”  And of course, the enormous smile and twinkle in his eye…

Dimitri brought his guitar… so smart.  Josh, not a boy of many words, said, “Mom, he was so nice.  It was great.”

I always knew our Cabin Leaders did a great job, rose to our expectations and took the job seriously (supervision-wise) but maintained the fun of learning (outdoor ed-style).  But my conversations with Josh have put them in an even more important light.  We teachers do the planning and organizing but what MAKES the trip is the high school students; their ability to lead gently (or firmly as needed), maintain order, join in on the fun, echo the learning objectives of the Naturalists at camp, create an inclusive environment for students just meeting one another and make the experience unique for their cabin.  All in five short days.

Dimitri was a student of mine in 6th grade.  I asked Josh about that, “He said a few things about you.”   I quipped, “Oh geez, did you tell Dimitri your name is Josh Smith?”  He smiled, “No, I told him you’re my mom.”

And a day or so later, as I tucked in my boys for the night, Josh shared, “Dimitri would wake us up every morning by playing his guitar.  It was great.  Except when it was rock music,” and he smiled at this memory and laid his head on the pillow.  I hope he had dreams of camp.

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